Communist symbols line the Ha Giang skyline of Northeast Vietnam. In the distance, the iconic red and yellow-star flags are visible across the barbed-wire fence. Suddenly, a hoard of blue-hatted tourists circles the viewpoint, gasping in admiration at the hostile border to their home country.

I could not help thinking; do they feel at home in this country because of a shared political ideology? Do I feel more at home in this country or one governed by democratic principles? Another question we seldom ask is how much politics influences our travel choices and whether this is something we should be concerned about.

Traditional Political Tourism

Historically, political tourism has been defined as a journey with a political motivation or to a political destination. Of course, this still persists in the case of foreign diplomats and politicians. However, political tourism arguably carries a broader definition. Travel within a given political spectrum, government-managed tours, and increased or reduced visa restrictions on the basis of inter-country relationships are all facets of political tourism. These trends are undeniable and yet remain relatively underreported.

Regardless of one’s specific motive or incentive for travel, such as proximity or price, visiting a foreign country usually allows us to broaden our political horizons and return with a clearer mindset.

Political Tourism Trends

I first became aware of political tourism in Vietnam. Receiving 5.5 million Chinese visitors pre-Covid, Vietnam was one of the top destinations for Chinese tourists. Since 1976, Vietnam has been a one-party socialist republic, spending much of the 20th century fighting Western powers. With the majority of China’s tourism managed by state-owned corporations, Vietnam has been marketed as the ideal destination. A journey to Vietnam allows a Chinese tourist to appreciate the benefits of a one-party state, the economic development of the country since the Vietnam War, and the stunning scenery preserved and maintained by its government.

The western world is no different. In 2022, UK tourists flocked most heavily to Spain followed by France, Greece, Italy and Portugal — all of which are official democracies. This trend continues with non-European destinations. The US came top with 3.2 million British visitors, followed by India with 1.3 million. Both of these countries hold close political ties with Britain as well as a shared democratic mindset, to a lesser or greater degree.

Perhaps even more pertinent is the United States‘ tourism trend. Mexico and Canada are the top two preferred destinations — most likely due to proximity. However, the UK, Italy and France almost tie as third favourite with American tourists. When it comes to countries that are a significant distance away from the US, political stability is often a key determiner of choice with most people seeking ‘safe’ destinations.

The trend towards safe tourism has continued over the years. Costa Rica’s increasing ‘democratic stability’ has led to a surge in visitors from western democracies. The United States, Germany, Spain, France and Switzerland rank among the top origin countries. Given Costa Rica’s eco-friendly policies and promotion of sustainable travel, there is every indication that tourism will continue to grow.

‘Home-Bubble’ Tourism

Politics has the power to shape tourism and, crucially, tourism has the power to shape politics. Donald Trump’s grievance with Mexico led to a drop in tourist arrivals — the same way that China’s state-controlled media scared travellers away from the West by repeatedly highlighting high Covid death rates.

Zero-dollar tourism (aka cheap package tours), is another worrying thought. With 55 per cent of Chinese tourists (pre-pandemic) booking their trips through government-owned operators, it’s clear that some of the benefits of travel, such as gaining an impression of living under a different political system, will be absent.

The inherent nature of travel forces the traveller to broaden their mind and adjust their views. As I walked around the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh — previously called the Museum of American War Crimes — the successful extraction of unexploded bombs struck my imagination. As I walked around the ‘House of Terror’ — a museum in Budapest commissioned by Victor Orban — I realised how the present administration was using the nation’s communist past to further its political agenda.

Like all aspects of society, tourism is intertwined with politics. The danger of only travelling within our ‘home bubbles’ is palpable and real. Travelling was once about discovering new lands, people and cultures. Current trends point to a less ambitious approach to travel, changing the idea of ‘seeing new places and faces’ for the worse.

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